A new study finds babies' social thinking mirrors that of adults.

By Melissa Willets
April 12, 2016
A baby's brain mirrors that of an adult's in social thinking.
Credit: Shutterstock

Do babies think and act the same way adults do when it comes to understanding the actions of others? You might say, "Of course not!" But a new study out of the University of Chicago, and published in Psychological Science, says otherwise.

In an effort to understand babies' social behavior, neuroscientists and developmental psychologists looked at 36 seven-month-olds who were wearing caps that could measure their brain activity. For a total of 12 times each, a baby watched as an actor reached for one of two toys; then, the baby was allowed to select a toy.

According to Science Daily, the infants' brain activity actually predicted how they would respond to the actor's behavior. When the tots engaged their motor system during the observation of the actor, they would copy him. When they didn't copy the actor, researchers didn't detect engagement of the motor system in their brain activity.

So what does that mean?

Helen Tager-Flusberg, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, explains: "This research tells us that, by the middle of their first year of life, babies are beginning to be able to understand that people act intentionally—that they choose one toy over another because they want that toy. This understanding on the part of a baby involves not just seeing the other person's action, but also involves the baby's own motor system, which is recruited when he or she chooses the same toy."

Basically, babies are more socially advanced than we thought.

"This is big news, that babies understand what they are observing, that there is a direct connection between observing others, understanding what others are doing, and learning how to act," said co-author Amanda Woodward, the William S. Gray professor of psychology at UChicago.

Researchers say this study will contribute to the overall understanding of the brain, and it even may help them learn more about brain disorders like autism. I'm just blown away that babies' brains are so sophisticated, and a little embarrassed by how many things I've done in front of my babies, thinking they don't understand what's going on yet...

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.